Haiti reconstruction starts at home, groups say ahead of UN donor conference

Ahead of a major UN donors conference on Haiti reconstruction, UN envoy Bill Clinton's call for a self-sufficient island have struck a chord. Haitians and aid groups are wary of creating a 'culture of dependency.'

Jorge Saenz/AP
Haiti reconstruction: Ditelle Jassente wears a mask before clearing earthquake debris in Port-au-Prince, Monday. The UN and Haitians agree that the country will do best by not embracing dependency on foreign aid.

Former US President Bill Clinton, the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, made a plea to aid groups ahead of Wednesday’s UN donor conference: let’s make Haiti so self-sufficient that it not longer needs us.

A curious request for a nation needing $11.5 billion, it estimates, just to get itself back on its feet after the Jan. 12 earthquake. Even before the earthquake, Haiti's feet were shaky as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

But there is a growing sense that a self-reliant Haiti, starting with a government-led reconstruction, is the only way forward from the political insecurity and poverty that has dogged the nation despite billions of dollars in foreign aid.

"Every time we spend a dollar in Haiti from now on we have to ask ourselves, 'Does this have a long-term return? Are we helping them become more self-sufficient? ... Are we serious about working ourselves out of a job?’” Mr. Clinton told representatives from aid groups last week.

His suggestions included allocating 10 percent of all aid toward government salaries and training, hiring locals as translators or fixers, and funneling money toward projects that create jobs, the Associated Press reported.

'Not just a ward of state'

It is a message that resonates among Haitians, says Kathy Calvin, CEO of public charity the UN Foundation.

"This is a country that wants to pull on its own resources and resilience, not just be a ward of state," she says. "I think everyone agrees that the Haitian point-of-view has to be part of this donor meeting.”

“We need to not be put in a state of dependency,” says Ricot Jean Pierre, program director for the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development, a coalition of non-government organizations. “We’re asking the government to prioritize national production; give us seeds so that we don’t have to depend on international aid.”

Clinton's message is significant, but it is not new. Various relief groups have envisioned Haiti leading recovery efforts. Krista Riddley, the director of humanitarian policy at Oxfam America, says relief efforts will only be legitimate and based on real needs "if we are taking the lead from Haitians themselves."

"Our big message is that this has to be a Haitian-led reconstruction, not just the government; involving civil society is key to making this a successful reconstruction," Ms. Riddley says.

Small groups look for bigger roles

Smaller groups, which often have more interface with communities, hope this means they'll be given a bigger role in reconstruction. “I’m very pleased that there is a shift back to the notion that maybe large NGOs aren’t the concept of everything,” says Demian Pasquarelli, the executive director of the non-profit Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas. At the “billion-dollar level,” he says, large groups are key to rebuilding the capital, but individual, face-to-face work is just as critical.

“Large NGOs cannot just dictate how [money] will be spent in-country,” says Mr. Pasquarelli. “It needs to be made by the government, who listens to what people are saying. The capacity of the government is limited, but if you don’t engage them, it will always be limited.”

Haitians wary of government and aid groups

While optimism remains high for some, others say the rhetoric – of both the international community and the Haitian government – does not match reality. On the ground, Haitians express distrust of both groups. They worry about corruption and the misuse of funds, and some point to the fact that the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, which has an 18-month mandate to coordinate the activities of the master development plan of the government, is comprised of more foreigners than Haitians.

In a new survey by Oxfam, which asked 1,700 Haitians about their most pressing needs, many expressed little confidence that the government could successfully lead reconstruction and called for a combined effort involving the federal government, civil society groups and foreign governments.

The group Madre, an international human rights organization, is one of more than 300 groups to sign a letter ahead of Wednesday urging donors to consider the viewpoints of Haitian civil society. Yifat Susskind, policy and communications director for Madre, says civil society has been left out of reconstruction plans. “There has not been any kind of meaningful access for them to play a role in this process to figure out how the country moves forward,” she says.

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